Much learned ink has been spilt in recent weeks marking the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, where Hutu extremists, in a 100-day orgy of violence, murdered an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis. While the United Nations had boots on the ground in Rwanda, the world stood by and watched the tragedy unfold.
NATO’s belated attack against Serbia over Kosovo five years later, in 1999, stemmed in large part from guilt over the U.N.’s failure to intervene in Rwanda. The Kosovo intervention was thought to have established a new world order, one in which human rights were paramount and where those leaders who abused their power and people had nowhere to hide.
Kosovo was the heyday of the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention.” Today, in Syria, we see its nadir. Humanitarian intervention has become the doctrine that dare not speak its name. On Syria, the so-called “liberal hawks” are silent.
The American writer Paul Berman, who I recently interviewed in Brooklyn, where he lives, wrote a fascinating book chronicling the political journey of some of the most vocal supporters of humanitarian intervention. They include the former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and the former French foreign minister and founder of Doctors Without Borders, Bernard Kouchner.
Berman’s “Power and the Idealists: Or, The Passion of Joschka Fisher and Its Aftermath” is a classic – a history book that reads like a novel, played out against the backdrop of global events from the late 1960s to the aftermath of the Iraq invasion in 2003.
An unabashed proponent of humanitarian intervention, Berman is angry that those who were most vocal in demanding action in Kosovo, and indeed more recently, in Libya, refuse to advocate intervention to protect civilians in Syria.
Fischer has consistently failed to back military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. As for Kouchner, he told BBC Radio last July, when a Western missile attack on Syria seemed imminent, that he wasn’t sure intervention was the best course of action. He thus reversed (and not for the first time) his earlier position on an issue.
Fischer and Kouchner are peripheral players on the political stage today. However, other liberal hawks, most notably U.S. President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, and his U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power, are very much at center stage. And their silence on the Syrian bloodbath is deafening.
Commenting on the Clinton administration’s failure to act in Rwanda, Rice famously said: “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.” Now Rice appears content to watch innocent Syrians go down in flames instead.
As for Power, her entire career has been built around her advocacy of humanitarian intervention. Her book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” on America’s failure to stop several 20th-century genocides, won a Pulitzer Prize. That is why her quietude in particular is a disgrace and smacks of political expediency.
Berman summed up why the liberal hawks have become cowed liberal doves in a single word: Iraq. “It sounds simplistic, but unfortunately, the shadow of Iraq now hangs over the concept of humanitarian intervention,” he says. “Afghanistan too has become very unpopular, and because of the failures of both wars, but particularly Iraq, the idea of humanitarian intervention has become a mob debate in which people just jeer. The possibility of a nuanced position has all but disappeared.”
Berman believes that the West is now firmly wedded to the notion that Middle Eastern societies are dysfunctional and beyond helping. “The mood now is that nothing can be done for the people who are suffering in Syria, because there are no good guys,” he observes. “The unfortunate trend of most of the Arab Spring has contributed to this and strengthened the view that the best we can do is keep out of it. It’s simplistic, but it is the general public feeling, on both left and right, and here in the U.S. it conforms to President Barack Obama’s instincts, which are anti-war and isolationist.”
And yet, Obama played a key role in the limited NATO-led humanitarian intervention in Libya in 2011, an action he undertook without consulting the U.S. Congress, and that may now be seen as the last flight of the liberal hawks.
Clearly, the descent into chaos of post-Gadhafi Libya, including the murderous attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, strengthened the hand of the isolationists.
But Berman draws an altogether different lesson from Libya. “The real lesson from Libya, and all these places, is that interventions have to be large,” Berman insists. “We didn’t intervene enough. We helped the Libyans get rid of Gadhafi and then left them alone. Without any great risk to ourselves we could have coordinated programs with the other Western powers to aid the admirable people in Libya. We didn’t and the vacuum was filled by tribal fighting, and so Libya became another factor in why we should not intervene elsewhere.”
What really disturbs Berman, however, is that Kosovo and other smaller interventions, and even the botched operation in Iraq, have failed to provide a consensual template for humanitarian intervention. “You would think almost 13 years after 9/11 that the U.S. in particular would have institutionalized responses for handling situations like Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic and Mali,” he argues. “At the end of the Second World War our leaders set up the United Nations, Bretton Woods, NATO. Why wasn’t anything along those lines set up after 9/11? Part of the problem is that we live in an age of political midgets. There are no Roosevelts or Trumans on the world stage.”
Berman makes a compelling case. However, blaming Iraq for the silence of the liberal interventionists today may be too easy. Key supporters of intervention in Kosovo, most notably French President Jacques Chirac and Fischer, were opposed to the Iraq invasion. And for all British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s espousal of human rights in a famous Chicago speech in 1999, neither he nor President George W. Bush used it to justify their ambition to invade Iraq. They preferred, instead, to invent, or cynically exaggerate, the threat Iraq posed to the West’s security in a largely failed attempt to win public support.
With that in mind, perhaps the real reason for the silence of the liberal hawks on Syria goes back to Berman’s earlier point about “political midgets.” Politicians today act like weathervanes and tend to respond to public opinion rather than lead it. Particularly in the U.S., there are few votes to be had in standing up for human rights in faraway lands.
Meanwhile, Assad will continue to accept the deafening silence of the liberal hawks as a signal from the West to continue the slaughtering of his own people. The wrenching pain of Rwanda cannot be unlived. But the tragedy today is surely that in Syria it is now being lived again. Happy anniversary.
Michael Glackin, a former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a writer in the United Kingdom.